Kiruv Revolution: A 21st Century Approach to Outreach
Are 21st century trends outpacing kiruv strategies?
The Kiruv Movement that began over forty years ago has enabled tens of thousands of Jews to become observant, and has helped hundreds of thousands get closer to Judaism in other ways. A consensus exists, however, that kiruv’s full potential has yet to be realized. The debate is about how. It’s an urgent question because US Jews are increasingly becoming unaffiliated spiritually and even communally. This Crisis of Connection needs creative solutions.
How can kiruv break through the glass ceiling? Given the scale of the mission and limited resources, it will take more than incremental program improvements.
We need a kiruv revolution, with bold, national initiatives for reaching out, teaching and working together.
Jewish Idea Lab is generating strategies and taking action to make this happen. Three national program models are presented in this article. They are designed to benefit all kiruv organizations, and many of the principles can be adapted to local efforts. Several key questions will be addressed:
- What level of resources should be devoted to kiruv?
- How do the changing values of the current generation impact the current kiruv model? How can we make initial learning more relevant to them?
- How can we use limited resources to conduct outreach on a mass level?
- How can we reverse a rising tide of negative perceptions about Torah life?
Challenge of Relevancy
Problem: Shifting Attitudes
The common pedagogical approach in kiruv begins with providing proofs of G-d and Torah. This approach is less and less effective, according to many reports from the frontline. Attitudes have shifted. Students are not intrigued by a search for “truth.” This is why core shiurim that were once very effective are having less and less success motivating participants into action.
Behavior Change Model. What drives an unaffiliated Jew to take an action towards Torah, and ultimately to become observant? The “old model” of behavior theory held that information-based attitudinal change was the primary precursor to behavior change. That assumption is reflected in the prevailing kiruv educational methodology which focuses on proofs of Torah and G-d as the critical first step to further action. However, according to the Behavioural Dynamics Institute in London, many studies have shown that attitudinal change is not the most effective way to change behavior. We see this in the field. Logic and facts are less and less persuasive to students at the initial stage of Torah learning.
In place of attitudinal change, experts devised new models that focus on the circumstances for directing behavior, i.e. identifying the strongest motivations driving a person or demographic group. Actual product attributes, therefore, are less determinative of outcome than previously assumed. We see this assumption clearly applied in automobile ads that often evoke emotion and aspirational values instead of details about the engine, etc.
Universal Need. That brings us to the question: What’s the most universal motivation today among people of all backgrounds? Personal growth. Each person has a motivated need that falls into this category. How can I deal with all of life’s problems? How will I marry the right person? How can I control my anger? How can I be happy? How can I excel at work?
The nature of secular living today is causing more emotional distress than ever before. Americans are more stressed today than three decades ago, the first-ever historical analysis of stress over time has found. Self-reported stress levels have increased 10-30% in the last three decades.
Demand. Various data show the strong demand for self-help products and services:
- Self-improvement was a $10 billion industry in the US in 2012, expected to grow 6% per year.
- Self improvement books accounted for an estimated $549 million and self-improvement audiobooks were 17% of all audiobook sales ($445 million).
- The top ten motivational speakers, plus the operations of Franklin Covey Co., had estimated sales of $350 million.
- Approximately 14,000 life coaches provided an estimated $707 million in services.
- The nation’s leading self-development seminar attracted 1.2 million participants since it started. Frum Jews continue to sign-up.
- The Secret, a personal growth book and DVD, was a national sensation and generated a $300 million in sales by its peak in 2009.
- The Purpose Driven Life, a personal growth book based on Christian biblical verses, was a NY Times bestseller garnering $32 million in sales.
Changing Values. Kiruv’s primary demographic is the Millennial generation, those born between 1982-2000. They are also known as Generation Y, but some experts say the most fitting label is the Me Generation. Their values make them less likely to connect to proofs of Torah and traditional learning:
- Millennials are more focused on “money, fame, and image” goals and less concerned about “self-acceptance, affiliation, and community” goals than Generation X (born 1962-1981) and Baby Boomers (born 1946-1961) were at the same ages.
- Freshman students who said being wealthy was very important to them increased from 45% for Baby Boomers to 70% for Gen X and 75% for Millennials.
- The importance of “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” plummeted from 73% for Boomers to 45% for Millennials.
Stress. Research also confirms that Millennials are in need of personal growth solutions. They are more stressed than any other current living generation, according to a new survey conducted by the American Psychological Association and Harris Interactive.
- A healthy stress level is 3.6 out of 10. Millennials reported a stress level of 5.4. (in comparison, the national stress level declined to 4.9.)
- Millennials reported that work (76 percent), money (73 percent) and relationships (59 percent) stressed them out most.
Solution: Personal Growth System
Invert the Model. Given various societal trends, it is clear that the kiruv pedagogical model needs fresh innovation for early-stage learning. The most common current approach focuses on proofs, and then offers some middos development learning at the intermediate level. Instead, Torah-based personal growth should be taught first to establish personal relevancy for learning (in addition, teaching thematically will be more effective for more people today than reading inside the text).
Torah is designed to be personal growth-oriented. Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, was a pioneer in the Toras Chaim (instructions for living) approach. The Five Levels of Pleasure and 48 Ways were successful classes, but much more is needed to reach today’s generation. A complete personal growth system is needed that can facilitate measurable transformation.
Frontline Seminar. The game-changer that appears to be called for is creating a Jewish personal development seminar for frontline kiruv. Nothing like that currently exists. An online personal growth documentary and eBook would supplement the seminar, and also help market the seminar across media platforms.
The seminar experience would be most effective as an interactive, intensive, transformative experience during a three-day shabbaton. A team of highly trained, dynamic seminar leaders would travel to Jewish communities around the nation to lead the seminar. Cutting edge teaching techniques will be integrated with meta-analysis of Torah-based personal growth sources, from the ancient to contemporary. The curriculum would be thematically organized and not text-based.
Judaism would be reframed as relevant, empowering, and meaningful. Participants will connect to Jewish Core Values, such as Respect, Gratitude, Forgiveness, Generosity, Kindness, Interpersonal Peace, Responsibility, Service, Modesty, Family Life, Learning, Joy, Love. The ultimate goal is to help the participant achieve transformational personal growth based on core Jewish values. Another goal is to help the participant connect to his or her neshama and make better choices using that spiritual understanding.
Once the participant recognizes the personal growth benefits of Judaism, more traditional learning would be offered, perhaps through referral to existing kiruv organizations. Advanced seminars on specific topics can also be offered.
According to the indicators, personal growth-oriented Torah is the most promising path for success. A huge demand and need for this also exists within the frum world, and this frontline kiruv seminar model can be adapted for frum participants. Indeed, the future trend may be the transformation of kiruv centers into personal growth centers offering various seminars for Jews of all backgrounds.
Challenge of Scale
Problem: Limited Resources
Did you ever wonder how much would it really cost to be mekarev every American Jew? Using traditional kiruv, my rough guestimate would be that about $4.5 billion would be needed annually for staff and programs (and that does not even include the cholent budget). This illustrates the real point: traditional kiruv has inherent limits to its reach.
The kiruv army needs reinforcements but can’t afford human ones.
We need what is known in the military as a force multiplier, Defined as “a capability that… significantly increases the combat potential of that force and thus enhances the probability of successful mission accomplishment.”
Hashem has given us a way to reach many more Jews than ever before: digital technology. Its full power for Torah is waiting to be harnessed.
Many options exist for learning online, yet there is something missing. Two things, actually.
The kiruv digital relationship can be enhanced. Aish.com, Chabad’s websites, and several other websites attract sizable audiences. However, not one kiruv organization is integrating all platforms in the optimal way: smartphone and tablet apps, website, iTunes, YouTube, ebooks, social media, and online keyword ads.
Solution: Virtual Torah World
A virtual Torah world website and app are needed to maximize the digital relationship with the kiruv audience. The supersite would be able to meet a full range of observant needs. The purpose would be to:
- Supplement in-person learning by providing 24/6 access to online learning by the person’s rebbe and others. Digital learning is not meant to substitute for in-person learning unless the person has no in-person access.
- Attract new participants who were unlikely to visit the kiruv center.
- Maintain relationship with existing participants through weekly parsha videos/audios, etc.
- Provide an online alternative to compete with secular entertainment.
- Generate new revenue by providing new opportunities for sponsorships and ads, and provide Torah learning to as many people as possible (and at no extra cost)
The website hub would feature: Channels, Cross-Platforming, Classes, Community, and Commerce.
Channels. An online multimedia Torah network would be a key component of the digital relationship. The network would feature original and aggregated content on multiple channels. The channels would be based on topic (such as Jewish History or Israel), lifestyle interest (such as Kosher Cooking or Jewish Music) or affinity group (such as Kids or Women). The entire digital experience would be customizable according to interest area and/or age group.
In Israel, the Hidabroot TV Channel is a very popular and effective tool for kiruv. The similar type of channel could be created in English and put online and possibly on satellite TV in the US.
Production Fund. Jewish Americans are still waiting for their imagination to be captured by amazing and inspiring online content. The online video and audio programs from observant sources are good, but not great. In comparison, other religions are producing multimedia content wither higher production values and even more creativity. I understand they have a bigger audience and more funding sources, but I believe we can do much more even with current resources. A non-profit production fund is needed to spark a wave of quality online video programs and documentaries for Jewish audiences.
Cross-Platforming. An OmniMedia Strategy involves stretching video/audio channel content across as many digital and broadcast platforms as possible. YouTube and iTunes are the most important online content distribution platforms. Two pilot projects confirmed their ability to reach learning audiences.
YouTube Channel. YouTube is the number one online video platform for the world, yet most kiruv organizations are not utilizing it as a teaching or community-building platform. A keyword search for Torah-related videos will yield many inappropriate results from sources to be avoided. In August 2010, I created the YouTube Torah Channel (www.youtube.com/TorahChannel) to solve this problem for less than observant Jewish viewers who were online anyway. I chose the best Torah videos from other content creators –with over 1,000 videos currently on the site – and placed them into 65 topical playlists. In addition, we produced 70 videos of rabbis presenting brief ideas.
The impact was beyond expectations. An estimated 1.5 million minutes of original and third party content were accessed since launch. The original videos, including one that went viral, attracted over 350,000 views. By the typical YouTube metrics – a cute cat video easily gets 1 million views – it doesn’t sound like a lot. But use kiruv metrics. Imagine filling eight Yankee stadiums several times with audiences for shiurim. That’s what was accomplished – and at almost no cost. In fact, more people viewed TorahChannel than visited any kiruv center in the world. Obviously, in-person kiruv is preferable, but many Jews cannot or will not come in person. This is a new starting point.
iTunes Podcasting. iTunes is the number one way people get audio content in the world. Despite its popularity, iTunes Podcasting remains a vastly underutilized learning platform in the kiruv world. Only a handful of kiruv rabbis have podcast channels.
I experimented with integrating iTunes with a real kiruv center. As chairman of the Aish Center advisory board in Manhattan, I offered to make it the first kiruv branch to have an iTunes podcast channel.
After the podcast was launched, something happened that caused the mekarvim to embrace digital kiruv as a tool. Rather quickly, the shiurim podcasts attracted many more listeners than anyone expected. By way of comparison, approximately 120 people per month attended shiurim. Last month, those very same shiurim were downloaded 3,000 times on iTunes – a 25 fold increase in audience reach. Since the launch 18 months ago, shiurim were downloaded 25,000 times, a significant metric for a local kiruv podcast without any marketing. A huge iTunes audience was waiting to be engaged.
Classes. A sizable audience exists for online video learning. For example, Rabbi Avraham Goldhar’s Crash Course videos about Judaism have attracted 185,000 views over two years. Current Torah learning websites generally don’t offer a customized system of progressive customizable learning, like a Torah version of the highly popular KahnAcademy.org. Rabbi David Forhman (Aleph Beta Academy) and others are developing this type of learning system. An excellent way to motivate unaffiliated Jewish students is to get certified to issue college credits through online courses about Judaism and other subjects, as is done by NaalehCollege.com.
Community. In addition to the site’s own social media platforms, social connection could be achieved by facilitating real world group activity and learning. A growing Jewish social network already exists –Shabbat.com – and would be an ideal partner. Over 35,000 members have been invited to 285,000 meals on the site. Now the site is expanding into filtered shidduchim and professional networking.
Challenge of Perception
Problem: Image Erosion
Torah Judaism is increasingly viewed unfairly in negative ways. In marketing, this is called a branding problem. There is a major disconnect that exists between reality and perception, likely due to several factors:
- Continued Growth of Political Correctness
- News Coverage of Jews Accused of Crime
- Growth of the Anti-Torah Movement
- Increased Cultural Divergence Regarding Values & Conduct
- Over-Focus on Victimization (Holocaust, anti-Semitism)
Solution: National Marketing Initiative
The image problem can be corrected considerably with an unprecedented response: a national Joy of Judaism branding campaign and marketing fund.
Rebranding Judaism may sound odd, but it is a necessary strategy for reaching more Jews. Other religions and atheist groups are increasingly using creative, high profile ad campaigns to enhance their image and recruit. We are not seeking converts, as they do, but we are seeking to attract lost Jewish souls. Some notable examples:
- The Mormon Church hired two major national ad agencies to evaluate public perception. Focus groups and surveys showed the public had a largely negative view of Mormons. A multimillion-dollar television, billboard, and Internet “branding” campaign was deployed in 21 media markets during 2010-11. The I’m a Mormon campaign profiled Mormons who defy stereotyping, including a surfing champion, a fashion designer, and a Haitian-American female mayor.
- Atheist groups are placing attention-getting ads on billboards (including in Times Square), buses, subways and national TV.  A new website and multimedia ad campaign was just launched targeting children called Kids without God. The tagline is “I’m Getting a Little Old for Imaginary Friends.”
- The leading messianic Jewish group spent $1.4 million for ads in NYC subways, buses, newspapers, magazines, and radio.
- This month, a Muslim group released a TV commercial portraying a Muslim man as an everyday American. Another Muslim group just launched a US campaign to rebrand the word “jihad” to mean “personal struggle.” Ads are already on buses and trains in Chicago and other cities. Social media is being used to promote the website.
- The Church of Scientology spent millions this month to air a 60-second slick ad during the Super Bowl. The video also aired 16 times an hour on a Times Square digital billboard visible to 500,000 people a day.
The Joy of Judaism campaign would use sophisticated, intriguing conceptual themes across the spectrum of platforms: print advertising, social media, online keyword ads, outdoor ads and press coverage. To reach more unaffiliated Jews than ever before, ads will be placed in places, publications and websites that they frequent. Many secular Jews are still not being reached at all, as outreach typically stays within Jewish cultural boundaries, such as Hillel and AEPi on campus. Many secular Jews operate outside such marketing boundaries.
Possible Themes. The many “Jewels of Judaism” must be revealed in a new way to inspire less than observant Jews – as well as to reinvigorate our own communities. The video and print ads would reflect Core Jewish Values in a compelling way: Family life. Spiritual connection. Love. Shabbos. Learning. Personal growth. Ethics. Life Purpose. Mysticism. The Holidays. Jewish Diversity.
The ads would show the most moving, inspiring, and even funny scenes of observant Jewish life. Some ideas: different types of Jews davening next to each other at the Kotel. A family around the Shabbos table. Hatzolah volunteer saving a life. Men dancing in a circle at a chasuna. A father and son lighting menorahs. A Purim party.
Judaism would be reframed as a personal “hero” instead of a global “victim.” Torah saves spiritual lives. It transforms a life of chaos and searching into a life of meaning and fulfillment. We would show how soulful connection and an understanding of the spiritual reality instill true confidence, as well as freedom from worry, fear and isolation.
Perhaps we need a Jewish Communications Agency. A national media director would oversee national marketing, advertising and public relations. Experts from those fields would be asked to serve on creative task forces. A rapid response team would quickly deal with biased news coverage of the observant world. A social media specialist would handle unfair attacks online, including unfairly negative search engine results. Misconceptions about observant Judaism would be debunked on a special website.
The Kiruv Revolution is not just theory. It has already begun. At the recent Association of Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP) annual conference, I issued a call to action during my presentation. AJOP and a number of leading mekarvim are helping with the first step for kiruv revolution – building consensus for concepts and creating inter-organizational cooperation. By working together, a world of opportunity becomes possible.
Ari Werth is founder/chief strategist of Jewish Idea Lab, a new incubator focused on revitalizing Judaism using digital media and personal growth content. He is chairman of the Aish Center advisory board in Manhattan and is an award-winning multimedia producer. He can be reached at mail@JewishIdeaLab.com.
2 Dynamics Institute,” video on homepage. Accessed February 17, 2012. For example, many people recognize exercise as essential to health but are still unable to initiate an exercise program. Some patients won’t exercise even if it is medically necessary. So we see attitude, i.e. understanding the benefit of a proposition, is just one of many factors influencing behavior.
 Industry sector estimates from Marketdata Enterprises, Inc, “$10.4 Billion Self-Improvement Market Survives Scandals & Recession,” PR Web, January 2, 2013.
 The surveys were the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study of high school seniors, conducted continuously since 1975, and the American Freshman survey, conducted since 1966 by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, as cited in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
 Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. US Department of Defense, 2005.